I absolutely love Gigi. I can see her so clearly as I sit here. I really wish she was real so I could close the laptop and go out for a coffee with her (though she’d probably suggest a glass of wine).
She might actually be my favourite character from any of my books (don’t hold me to this!). She’s been bubbling away in my subconscious for a long time waiting to be written about, I think. One of the questions I get asked most often is where I get my ideas for characters from. It’s a complicated answer . . . different for every character, really. Sometimes your story comes first, and you build characters to work with your plot. Not this time – Gigi and Tess asserted themselves, as did the wonderful Iris, and a plot had to be built around them. As for Gigi, I got her name (and names are hard, harder than you’d think) from a girl I worked with in my first job in London after university. I was incredibly nervous, and she’d already been working for a few years, and had all the confidence I dreamed of having. She was plump and had a fabulously throaty laugh and she seemed so utterly sorted and cool and kind to me. So the name sort of inspires the physicality of the character, and that’s helpful.
But everything else is different – this Gigi is well and truly middle aged (actually I suppose my real Gigi is too, since I am myself!). There’s a bit of my own experience thrown in. Inspiration from the women around me. I never write a real person, but there are a thousand bits of a hundred people around me in the mix. If it doesn’t sound too mad, characters do become real to you as you write their stories. That’s helpful, actually – they can tell you something of how they’d react or behave in a situation.
Gigi is in her fifties. She’s an experienced midwife, and it’s a job she absolutely loves. But the centre of her life has been her family – her husband Richard and her three children: Christopher, Oliver and her bonus baby Megan. Christopher and Oliver are all grown up – Chris has a wife of his own, Emily, and a baby – Ava – so Gigi’s a grandmother too (which she adores). Oliver (to whom she is the closest – which is, as all mothers know, NOT the same as having a favourite!) is single and working on his career. Megan, the baby of the family, is off at university. So her nest is empty, and that emptiness has shone a bright and not entirely flattering light on her own life and, dangerously, on her marriage to the quiet and affable Richard.
She’s experiencing that ‘is that all there is?’ moment
Gigi is funny, and brave, and immensely strong. She is loving, and loyal, and huge fun. That’s how I picture her at least – one of life’s radiators.
But she’s fed up when we meet her. Feeling unfulfilled and unappreciated, frumpy and just a bit lost. She’s experiencing that ‘is that all there is?’ moment – the horrendous middle aged menopausal fear that maybe the best of your life is behind you. There’s been a health scare, too – the kind that resolves, but completely shakes up the way you view your life. I had one of those last year – ironically, after I’d finished writing Letters to Iris – but, almost reassuringly, I had a lot of the feelings I’d ascribed to Gigi once it was over. I call it ‘fridge magnet thinking’ – when you read aphorisms that are often printed on fridge magnets and realise they’re all very wise…you know – the ‘life isn’t a rehearsal’ type of stuff.
Gigi’s a natural born carer – one of the reasons she and my other main character Tess latch on to each other so fast when they meet is that Gigi needs to give love and care and Tess badly needs to receive it (almost estranged from her mother, she is heartbroken at the slow deterioration of her beloved grandmother Iris). The women fulfil a deep need in each other immediately (because I think difficult and empathetic situations such as arranging care for an ill elderly relative can fast track intimacy that way).
And Gigi’s going to shake things up. Do you remember Kathy Bates’s character in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (if you haven’t seen it, stop what you’re doing immediately and watch it!) reinventing herself in the shadow of a story from years before? I wanted something of that courage and determination in Gigi. She’s not going to settle. She’s not going to wait for middle age to turn into old age without trying to find happiness again, wherever she has to look for it. I admire her, and I am inspired by her. I hope you love her too!